The Cat of Nine Tails

The cat. Scratched by the cat. Let the cat out of the bag. These terms figure prominently in most nautical fiction set during the Age of Sail. Collingwood was famous for his reluctance to use the cat. St. Vincent, on the other hand, not so much.

Because the cats were woven by bosun’s mates for each use, we only have a limited notion of what an actual cat of nine tails looked like at the time of Nelson. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London has a cat of nine tails in its collection but it dates from about 1860 and was used as a model to show how one was to be constructed. It is pictured below.

I suspect this item on exhibit at Captain Cook Birthplace Museum more with it’s less cruder construction and the elaborate Turk’s head knots on the handle is closer to what was used:

Cat Of Nine Tails, Captain Cook Birthplace Museum

Cat Of Nine Tails, Captain Cook Birthplace Museum

Or this item which is part of the collection of the National Museums Liverpool–Merseyside Maritime Museum’s collection:

The website of the Historical Maritime Society states that a cat of nine tails from the era of Nelson is part of the collection of Anatomy Department of the Edinburgh University Medical School. This may or may not be the case as there is no accessible record of this item being property of that institution.

It is hard to reach across the two centuries separating us from the Age of Sail and draw value judgments on what is right or wrong. Morality changes over time. There are modern armies, very good armies, in which corporal punishment is a part of the way business is conducted and an officer who hesitates before using it is looked upon as weak by his soldiers. I sponsored an officer from one such nation when I was a junior captain and it was an eye opener. And it is worthy noting that when the Royal Navy mutinied as Nore and Spithead in 1797 flogging was not among the grievances.

But by the time flogging was abolished, it seems to have fallen into disfavor. Says one Royal Navy officer who was on active duty at that time

“My firm conviction is that the bad man was very little the better; the good man very much the worse. The good man felt the disgrace, and was branded for life. His self-esteem was permanently maimed, and he rarely held up his head or did his best again.”

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Filed under Age of Sail, Naval Life

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